Without Warning is often considered the War of the Worlds of its time. In 1938, Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds rocked a generation. At a time when information was limited to newspapers and radio broadcasts, and the United States was consumed with anxiety over an upcoming World War, it is easy to see how The War of the Worlds could have spawned widespread panic and even phobias.
In 1994, however, the United States was in an era of peace and prosperity. Cable television had vastly expanded our access to information, and the internet was growing in popularity. It is hard to believe that nearly sixty years later, a more sophisticated population could again be taken in by a similar hoax. Yet Without Warning did just that.
Without Warning was a made for TV movie that was broadcast on CBS on Halloween night 1994. Like The War of the Worlds, Without Warning was created as a series of news flashes and broadcasts. Authenticity was brought to the film by the appearance of several CBS news anchors as themselves, as well as the use of the CBS News logo throughout.
Like The War of the Worlds, the film begins with “regular programming,” in this case a movie called Without Warning starring Loni Anderson. The movie is soon interrupted by a breaking news report, and is quickly pre-empted altogether by continuing coverage of the situation. The premise is that meteors have crashed in Wyoming and undisclosed locations in France and China. The impact locations are a precise distance from one another, leading to the theory that they may have been deliberate.
Lone survivors are found at the France and United States sites, speaking unintelligibly and severely burned. Soon the impact sites begin radiating signals that disable aircraft in the area. A large spacecraft is detected heading toward the North Pole. Against the protests of world leaders, the United States launches a preemptive attack on the spacecraft, which is successful. However, a research scientist releases a statement that the first impacts were a message of first contact from an alien species, and that the destruction of the spacecraft was a declaration of war.
New meteors are tracked, this time heading toward major population centers and nuclear weapons arsenals – Washington DC, Beijing and Moscow. These meteors are successfully intercepted. Soon after, the ramblings of the French and American survivors are unscrambled, and turn out to be pieces of a message sent by the Secretary General of the United Nations on the Voyager space probe.
Soon a rain of meteors is detected, blanketing the Earth. The news anchors say their good-byes on air and prepare for inevitable destruction as reports come in of destroyed cities worldwide. An elderly anchorman delivers the final line, a quote from William Shakespeare – “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not within our stars, but within ourselves,” and the screen cuts to static.
The creators of Without Warning were, of course, highly aware of the panic created by The War of the Worlds, itself a CBS broadcast. Therefore, numerous steps were taken to better inform the public of the fictional nature of the show. Unlike Mercury Theater on the Air, the show on which The War of the Worlds was broadcast, Without Warning was supported by advertising. Disclaimers appeared onscreen at the beginning and end of the film, as well as at every commercial break.
Nonetheless, alien phobias and doomsday phobias are highly powerful, and can override rational judgment. Even when not at the level of phobia, these fears are dramatic and almost primitive in nature. Accordingly, Without Warning spawned a panic that has been compared to that associated with its predecessor. Police stations were flooded with panicked phone calls. Meanwhile, the rival networks got angry calls from viewers wanting to know why they were not covering this important event.
Of course, in the Information Age, a widespread panic over a fictional event is not likely to last long. While The War of the Worlds panic became a phenomenon, the Without Warning panic flamed out rapidly. Most viewers were able to have their fears allayed quickly. Nonetheless, the realistic portrayal of the twin threats of alien invasion and doomsday scenarios, coupled with the idea that our society could be the one to provoke such a scenario, was enough to spark phobias in many viewers.
Hysteria v. Phobia
When considering the hysteria surrounding this and similar films, it is important to understand the differences between situational panic and phobias. When we are thrown into an unfamiliar situation, particularly if we feel threatened, it is normal to be scared. In a group situation, people often feed off each other's emotions, leading to what is sometimes termed "mass hysteria." However, these emotions tend to wear off quickly once we no longer perceive danger.
In a true phobia, you will find that while the panic may wear off, the fear does not. You will remain nervous and wary in situations that remind you of the one you feared. To help decide whether your fear has become a phobia, check your symptoms, then visit a mental health professional if necessary.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.